NIH Grant Gives Students Opportunity to Get Hands-On Experience
Published on May 2, 2014
SELINSGROVE, Pa.—When Susquehanna University Associate Professor of Economics Matt Rousu received a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the preferences of smokers, he knew he would need students to help with the research. In turn, the students, ranging from first-years to seniors, are getting invaluable, real-world economics experience.
Rousu has received two NIH grants recently, both to study smokers’ preferences for tobacco. The first study, which began in 2009, explored current smokers’ interest in smokeless tobacco products. The current study is aimed at exploring current smokers' interest in using electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Rousu expects nearly 700 participants by the study’s conclusion. Participants are split into groups of 10 to 16 people, and students run the individual sessions. They explain the forms, which request demographic information about the participants and their interest level in the smokeless products, give prompts, and run an auction for various smoke and smokeless products to explore how advertising affects demand for cigarettes and potential substitutes. In the auction, participants evaluate e-cigarettes and bid blindly against each other based on the maximum they’d pay for the products.
Courtney Conrad, a first-year business administration and economics double major from Selinsgrove, didn’t expect to be working so soon on research when she first came to campus.
“A year ago, I would have never pictured myself in this position,” Conrad said. “I always enjoyed public speaking and I did not enter school as an econ major. Now, I’m an econ major and a research assistant. It is totally mindblowing the types of opportunities we have at SU and being able to capitalize on them with such caring and open faculty members.”
Conrad was tabbed for the project after Rousu saw her ease with public speaking. There’s plenty of that while running the auction. And Conrad, greeting every participant with a handshake and nearly instantaneously learning their names, shows the poise of a veteran researcher and the excitement of watching doors open for her that she couldn’t have imagined.
“I love how SU has so many opportunities, not just inside the classroom. In this case, I’m taking what I learn in the classroom in economics and applying it to real-world applications,” Conrad said. “We’re showing supply and demand with actual consumers in the real world.”
Hannah Kronenwetter, a senior chemistry major with a minor in economics from Danville, Pa., has taken just three economics classes, but has gained invaluable experience by being a research assistant for Rousu since her sophomore year. She also sees tremendous value in knowing how other departments conduct research.
“It’s fun to participate because I get a different view of the research being done here,” Kronenwetter said. “It’s definitely helped me look at how [economics] research projects are put together and how things are run.”
The students, about 14 total this semester, start by handling incoming calls from smokers who want to participate, then progress to running the auctions, doing follow-up interviews, assembling the packets and entering the data.
“It’s not the type of project undergraduates would get to work on at a school with graduate students,” Rousu said.
The current NIH grant totals $275,000, and Rousu and his students are collaborating with researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.